A Call to Arms | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A Call to Arms

Braddock Mayor John Fetterman Wears His Allegiances on His Sleeve

It's around 7 on a warm, mid-June evening when folks begin to arrive at Mayor John Fetterman's warehouse on Library Street. Tonight marks Braddock's first "light-up night" in years. But unlike Downtown Pittsburgh, the tiny borough has no skyscrapers, fireworks or massive crowds. If you were to walk 50 yards down the street and look along Braddock Avenue, the borough's main street, you'd see more abandoned buildings than active ones. As the sun sets, it's tempting to wonder what light-up night entails when so many lights have gone out.

Regardless, the crowd grows to about 40. Attendees eat free hamburgers, potato salad and barbecue-flavored chips, until darkness arrives. They are then ushered toward one of Braddock's tallest structures ... the eight-story Ohringer Building ... and instructed to look up. Though the Ohringer is mostly tan brick and cement, its northeast corner is lined, from floors three through seven, with glass-block windows. Soon, in seemingly random order, neon-green light forms letters in those windows:

First an "O" three floors from the roof.

Then a "C," one floor beneath it.

Then a "D" on the seventh floor.

And then a "K" in the fourth-floor window.

The message is "DOCK": Spelling the town's full name, presumably, would require a taller building.

And then the final letter changes. The word becomes "DOCC." Then it changes back again.

A round of applause builds, like a slow-gathering rainfall. It may not be clear to all the onlookers, but the light-up display illuminates a rebranding strategy: "Braddock" is the long-suffering town of old, haunted by crime and memories of better times. "Braddocc" is a new place, whose name symbolically incorporates a doubled "C."

That's a spelling used by local members of the Crips street gang, says Mayor John Fetterman; it appears here in homage to, rather than horror of, those young Braddock residents.

In Braddock, steel was king; Braddocc's new king has yet to be anointed. But the mayor, at least, is determined to turn it into something amazing.

Fetterman is a six-foot-eight, 300-pound, former high-school offensive tackle from York, Pa. He holds a handful of degrees, capped off by a master's in public policy from Harvard. He has Braddock's zip code ... 15104 ... tattooed on his left forearm. He shaves his head bald anb sports a goatee.

Fetterman ran for mayor last year, winning by a single vote in a three-candidate Democratic primary. Though he's never held elected office before, and though the powers of a borough mayor are limited, he's doing his best to inspire much-needed change.

The light-up night was Fetterman's idea. It is part of a campaign designed to show people that Braddock ... perched on the Monongahela River just upstream and across the river from the Waterfront mall ... still exists. Another part of the campaign offers indoor space to "urban pioneer[s], artist[s] or misfit[s]" rent- and tax-free, no questions asked.

Such an offer is directed at those who, like Fetterman, see opportunity in the region's post-industrial decline. So far, however, the number of people taking advantage of such opportunities in Braddock is limited. Probably because that means actually going to Braddock ... which is more than many of us are willing to do.

Unlike a lot of former industrial towns in the Monongahela Valley, Braddock still has an active steel mill: Andrew Carnegie's first, the Edgar Thomson Works, began steel production here in 1875. Even so, Braddock is no better off than the de-industrialized town of Duquesne, or Homestead pre-Waterfront Mall. A major reason for this, Fetterman notes, is that almost no one who works at ET lives in Braddock.

The mill "really is just a polluter and historical ballast," Fetterman says. "It defines the town in some respects, but in terms of its actual relevance today, its role is limited."

Even so, Braddock still carries the reminder not only of its own history, but of Pittsburgh's history as well. Like the region as a whole, Braddock was once a place where workers flocked from all over the world, seeking jobs and a new life in the mills.

In the novel Out of this Furnace, the pre-eminent depiction of working-class, turn-of-the-century Braddock, author Thomas Bell describes Braddock's appeal, despite its dangerous working conditions and smoky atmosphere:

Hope ... sustained them all; hope and the human tendency to feel that, dreadful though one's circumstances might be at the moment ... there were people much worse off; in fact, what with a steady job in the blast furnaces, a cozy home on the cinder dump ... and a dollar to slap down on Wold's bar on a Saturday night, one was as well-favored a man as could be found in the First Ward. And there was always hope, the hope of saving enough money to go back in triumph to the old country, of buying a farm back in the hills, of going into business for one's self.

As Bell further describes Braddock: "It used to be a good place to live. So many people wanted to live here there were never enough houses to go around." Indeed, according to Census Bureau information, in the 1920s Braddock's population peaked at over 20,000 residents in an area just over a half-mile square. That was a higher population density than Brooklyn has today. And as late as the 1960s and 1970s, Talbot and Washington avenues attracted people from all over Pittsburgh for shopping, bars and restaurants.

"I can remember when you could get anything on [Braddock Avenue]," recalls Terry Blannon, a former Braddock resident who returned in early July to reunite with friends and family. "You could see a movie, you could shop, you could do anything you wanted to and it was all right there. Makes me sad to see it like this."

As steel declined, fewer workers were recruited into the industry. And more of those working in the mill moved farther into the suburban sprawl. Braddock began to look less like an economic boomtown and more like an urban skeleton. In 1950 Braddock's population was 16,488; in 2000 it was 2,912. That's an 82 percent decrease over 50 years.

"Everybody's got their own opinion about Braddock. I'm sure we've been studied to death," says Vicki Vargo, who's lived next door in North Braddock all her life and who works in Braddock, serving as office manager for the local branch of the Carnegie Library ... the first built in the United States. "But what it comes down to is the way people shop and the way people lived, the way suburbia was evolving from shopping in the city, to shopping at Eastland [Mall in North Versailles], then to Monroeville. ... People always wanted to go into the suburbs."

Today, only 46 percent of Braddock's residents over the age of 25 have a high school diploma or its equivalent. More than half its households make less than $20,000 annually; one-fifth make under $10,000 annually.

For a number of years in the 1970s, Braddock's major-crime rates ranked No. 1 in the country. Today, much of Braddock, and especially the lower portion affectionately known as "The Bottom" to locals, looks post-A-bomb. Parts of it are virtual ghost towns where vacant, charred buildings are commonplace. The town only seems to make it into local news when someone dies (recall the infamous "pizza delivery" murder earlier this year, in which a delivery driver was shot to death on Carey Way) or someone like me is telling you how miserable Braddock has become.

Add to that the borough council's tendency for making headlines: Just this year, for example, Braddock Borough Council was forced to sue its elected tax collector because she was more than three months late turning over records of unpaid property taxes. In 2004, council voted to spend $5,000 redecorating council chambers ... with funds originally obtained for a local playground.

When surrounded by blight, Vargo says, it's natural for residents to wonder, "Why do you have clean up during the day when, that night, what you cleaned up is going to be a mess again? And, when you start to get into that rut ... why bother? And I realize you can't have that mentality because then the kids are going to have that mentality. ... And when they get old enough, they're going to leave. ... So I stay and I try to help as best I can, in whatever ways I can. Hopefully things will change."

If Fetterman has his way, they will.

Years before he became mayor, before he even moved to Braddock, Fetterman began outlining a vision for it.

"Pittsburgh is a veritable Louisiana Purchase for those true individuals that can, and do make a difference in a city," Fetterman wrote in the pages of City Paper back in 2003.

How did he choose Braddock as the place to stake his claim? As Fetterman tells it, while doing pro-bono grant-writing work for the Hill House Association, he wrote a proposal to help out-of-work youths get their GEDs and jobs. Hill House liked the proposal, and asked Fetterman if he'd head up an office in Braddock. Fetterman accepted, and began working there in 2001. By 2004, drawn to the borough's post-industrial "Fight Club-feel," he decided to live there.

"When I initially started, I didn't think I was going to move here," he says. "I wouldn't say I fell in love with Braddock," but he did develop "an interest in its inherent historical and architectural qualities. ... It's not a love, per se, but rather a quiet reverence for its inherent beauty and history."

In late 2004, Fetterman purchased an old Presbyterian church building with family money. "I squatted in my church's basement with no heat or windows for eight months through the coldest winter in a decade," he says. And then he secured the warehouse next door.

Fast-forward to this year. Mayor Fetterman has moved into the old concrete-block warehouse, having converted it into a Greenwich Village-style loft apartment with brown leather couches, exposed concrete block walls and stainless-steel countertops. He's also allowed the kids he works with to paint graffiti inside it. He's refurbished the church next door, having transformed it into a community center that provides space for after-school programs and community dances.

Fetterman is one of the few people making such investments here. His father owns a private insurance agency in York; Fetterman says the firm is successful enough to give him "the opportunity to target investments in Braddock ... and to reinvest nearly all of my [work] salary ... back into the community."

Fetterman earns roughly $33,000 per year from his Hill House job; being mayor of Braddock is a part-time position that pays only $150 a month. Yet he says he's invested about $100,000 in the church and around $30,000 in his home, a price which includes two 50-foot-long shipping containers he's had installed on the roof as extra living space.

This is aside from the time and physical effort he's invested by fixing basketball courts and playgrounds. It's all part of Fetterman's effort to improve "the quality of life and opportunities for our young people" and to attract "outside interest, ideas, investment and energy."

Fetterman sees Braddock's plight as an opportunity. As his Web site (www.15104.cc) puts it, "destruction breeds creation": The "malignantly beautiful town" of Braddock, the site adds, offers "an unparalleled opportunity for the urban pioneer, artist or misfit to be part of a new, experimental effort."

He preaches this pretty much everywhere he goes ... when he's helping local youths get their GEDs, or planting new trees and shrubs in his front lawn, or giving tours of Braddock. He talks up Braddock when contacting local media, or picking up garbage left behind by squatters, or any of the other tasks he performs daily. He does it, in part, to set an example for those who might feel overwhelmed by Braddock's plight.

"When you consider [Braddock's] affluence and its place in history," Fetterman says, "it's amazing to think that it can allow someone like you or I the freedom to pursue a whole new level of social entrepreneurial freedom."

His activities, though, have not been welcomed by Braddock's borough council, whose monthly meetings he no longer attends.

"If there was a dream team of holding everything collectively back, you couldn't assemble a finer group," he says. "I mean, if your mission was to stifle any kind of creative energy or idea ... this is like the 1980 U.S. hockey team." And, Fetterman contends, they fail to realize the value of the assets Braddock still has. Instead of redeveloping nationally recognized historic buildings along Braddock Avenue, for example, council has made it easier to destroy them: In 2004, Braddock officials lobbied the state to remove the buildings from a list of historic sites. Doing so cleared the way for future demolition.

Many of Fetterman's efforts have gone around council, rather than through it. Fetterman paid out of his own pocket for the lighting used for light-up night, for example. (The event was also sponsored by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups.)

Braddock Borough Council President Jesse Brown was unavailable for comment, citing persistent health problems. But Borough Administrator Ella Jones suggests that if he can't get council to see things his way, Fetterman is going to be, well, fettered.

"In a borough, the local government is different than a city," Jones says. "In a city the mayor has the authority. ... He has the power. He can do a lot of things." In a borough, however, "He can't affect anything the way it's done in a city. The mayor's responsibility is to oversee the police department, and that's it." Policy is set by council, she says. "The mayor is a tie-breaker... and I've never seen anybody break a tie in five years. Council is it. Council makes the laws. They do it all. They have the vote. They make the rules. And he doesn't."

Fetterman has even less control over the state Turnpike Commission, the agency planning to build a toll road through his town. If constructed, the Mon-Fayette Expressway (MFX) would invade Braddock, destroying as many as 205 homes, 115 of which are currently occupied.

The Expressway, which will link Pittsburgh and Monroeville to West Virginia by way of the Mon Valley, has been on drawing boards since the 1950s. But funding shortages and local opposition have delayed it repeatedly, leaving Braddock in a decades-long limbo.

"It's like the abortion debate," says Fetterman, referring to the endless back-and-forth argument over the MFX. "While they're kicking around this road and they're still $4 billion short, [talk of the highway] just stunts any kind of development or growth or anything here in Braddock."

Fetterman is standing, at noon, in a car-less parking lot between the Monongahela River and Braddock Avenue, standing on crabgrass growing between cracks in the pavement. Garbage occasionally blows past his feet. Abandoned buildings surround him. The hot afternoon sun reflects off his shaved head.

He ducks into the rear driver's-side door of his silver 2003 Dodge Durango and pulls out a huge black tarp.

He begins to unroll the tarp clumsily, gesturing with his hands as he speaks. "You see those ... buildings over there?" He looks over his left shoulder and points to piles of wood and ash: the remains of an abandoned home and three charred row houses. "Three out of four have burned down in the last two months. I give that last one a month."

Vacant buildings continue to burn down almost systematically in Braddock, Fetterman says. They're neglected and attract squatters who cause the buildings to burn down ... whether they leave a cigarette burning or drop a match or purposely set fires or whatever. Tarp still in hand, Fetterman continues speaking, gradually getting angrier, louder:

"They've been talking about it for 30 years. ... And because of it, there's no real incentive to maintain any of these buildings because there's a huge stretch of land that is going to be used, demolished. Build it or kill it is what I say. If you're going to secure funds, set a deadline. And if you can't secure funds by that deadline, then you need to take it off the agenda, because to talk about it for another 10 or 15 years ... look at what it looks like now! ... What's it going to look like in five years?"

He rolls out the tarp. It reads:



He plans to hang it on a fence in front of the Mattes Building at Seventh and Woodlawn avenues, which the proposed Mon-Fayette Expressway will sweep away.

All things considered, Mattes doesn't look that bad ... it's a former warehouse that still has a functional roof. But I suspect that someone has been pissing and shitting and literally eating garbage in the doorway for weeks. There are paper towels and orange peels and diapers and toilet paper everywhere, for one thing. And it smells like piss and shit.

"[W]e're all trying to create a better environment for everyone around here, and we're doing a good job of it as I see it," Fetterman says. "But we've still got assholes like this guy ... this squatter ... who drags garbage into the Mattes Building ... to eat." Fetterman sighs. "With a little creativity and effort from ... anyone really, we can get on the right track to making this a better place, but until then ..."

Until then, Braddock is in a holding pattern, unable to begin its revitalization.

Turnpike officials, predictably, say the expressway is the key to that effort.

"Braddock and many of the other Mon Valley communities have their problems, but that's because there's a lack of building and economic base," contends Joe Brimmeier, who heads the Turnpike Commission. "You have to have an adequate transportation system to have economic development, and that's what we're trying to provide."

Brimmeier hopes the road can be completed in eight to 10 years. "Right now ... and, I mean, it's no secret ... we do not have the money to complete the expressway. But you just keep plugging away until money becomes available. No road has enough funding from the beginning. ... It's not a matter of who's right or who's wrong here. We've all got the same purpose in mind ... to rebuild the Mon Valley. We've all watched the decay of the Mon Valley, and I don't know how long Mr. Fetterman has been here, but we all have the same goal."

But with gas prices at $3 a gallon and no end in sight, Fetterman says a new highway is an out-of-touch solution.

"It was not that long ago that there was train service to and from downtown Pittsburgh to Braddock," he says. "Those rail lines still exist. A multi-modal, progressive transportation solution is what's needed."

And that's consistent with Fetterman's approach: He and his cohorts believe in the power of small-scale change ... building upon what Braddock already has, rather than "big dig" projects.

Fetterman's highest-profile effort is the artist initiative. Fetterman hopes to draw artists and creative individuals to the area with the offer of free space in the Ohringer Building, the center for the light-up night festivities. (Prior to that, the building once housed a furniture store and, more recently, an office of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services.) A Pittsburgh mayor might have been able to purchase the building through a redevelopment agency, or have it condemned; given the constraints on Fetterman's power, however, he had to take a less official route: He struck up a deal with owner Brandywine Management, who simply had no other plans or prospects for the property.

The concept is less Fetterman's work than that of Jeb Feldman and Pat Clark. Feldman is a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon University's Arts Management Program who's taken a strong lead in recruiting artists to Braddock, and in helping Fetterman with public-relations work. Fetterman half-jokingly refers to Feldman as his deputy mayor.

An idea merchant for Jackson Clark Partners (and husband of City Paper staffer Al Hoff), Clark hopes Braddock will someday be "an example of how, if you want to make places like Braddock better, you've got to invest in the area. ... You can do things in a small way ... like fixing up a small building."

Or can you?

Full disclosure: A friend and I ran a little rag called Deek Magazine, to which Fetterman offered upwards of 16,000 square feet of space in the Ohringer Building this past spring. We turned him down, mainly because we were in the process of folding. But the first time I walked into the Ohringer Building, I was overwhelmed by the view from the roof. It's the best visual representation you can get of the Braddock area: You can see the library, the bank, the ET works, and ... outside of Braddock ... Kennywood and the Homestead Waterfront.

It's surreal and beautiful, but also sad ... given all the empty storefronts and homes also in view ... and potentially absurd. The first time I went up there, I watched a baby-blue Honda hatchback drag the bucket of a front-end loader down Seventh Avenue with a tow-hitch and a chain ... steel on pavement, sparks flying, in the middle of the afternoon.

Most of the artists who've been offered free space have declined interviews, or asked not to be quoted. Perhaps it's because, as Jeb Feldman contends, no one "want[s] to be that person panning our efforts."

The most obvious problem is crime. A current Braddock resident, Oscar Underwood, suggested half-seriously that if I wanted to fully experience Braddock, I should "get mugged." Even Feldman, who has indefinitely prolonged his post-graduation stay in Pittsburgh to help revitalize Braddock, won't move there. His excuse: "I have too much stuff." And that's not to say his stuff won't fit there.

But there might be other reasons there hasn't been a rush to take advantage of the free space.

For one thing, there's the view inside the building. Picture an eight-story dentist's office: unflattering fluorescent lighting; 10-foot high drop ceilings; loads of bad, yellow linoleum tile floors, lots of plaster. A few bands ... who don't care what it looks like and just want someplace to play as loud and as long as they want ... have been using the building for practice space.

Anything to liven the place up. Because more pressing than the dentist's-office feel is the eeriness. It smells like stale air and dust, and when you actually get a key to the Ohringer Building and experience its overbearing silence at 3 in the afternoon, it's tough to know what to do from there. The possibilities for what you can do are so vast. But it's also overwhelming how little one person can accomplish when there's so much to be done.

One person willing to try is Curtis Reeves, a photographer and filmmaker whose work focuses on African-American history. "I was the second person to be there," he says. "Our studio is totally revamped. We're doing that to create an atmosphere that people can come and feel comfortable and make images. ... As other artists come into the space, [Braddock] is going to be a totally cool place to work and create. I'm here to help with that."

Still, if artists work in Braddock by day and return home by night, is that any better than steelworkers at the Edgar Thomson works doing the same thing?

"I think having artists in Braddock is good, sure," Underwood says. "My only fear is that you're gonna have a buncha folks in here who come in during the day every now and then to do what they do ... and then leave before it gets dark to go back to wherever they came from. I mean, what good is that? They get here, put themselves in a box, then leave a couple hours later. Who does that help?"

"I happen to agree 100 percent with Oscar," says Fetterman."If these efforts do not encourage more people to see Braddock as a viable and desirable place to live, I would largely consider my efforts a failure."

Jeb Feldman has more positive spin on the idea:

"I think that artists are social people. And before you [see] ... retail things going on in Braddock, you might see something like John's church being used as a music venue for a show ... and you might have some parties going on in Braddock ... things like that that create actual energy in the streets at night.

"I don't see any of this happening overnight," he continues. But, he says, "if you manage to erase that stigma that Braddock ... [is] really a dangerous place ... you'll eventually be able to succeed."